PEMcast 008.2 – Building Stories

Dinah: At the turn of the century two intrepid
explorers set up camp at the end of the world. Nigel: …and there in a little area tucked
away is this tiny little building is you approach it you see the stables you see
the wheel from the first vehicle used in the Antarctic… and as you into that door
it’s all before you the picture of the king and queen of England, the ham still hangs on the wall… Chip: That’s Nigel Watson executive director at the Antarctic
Heritage Trust speaking with the BBC about a recent effort to preserve an
important piece of early 20th century history a series of buildings– cabins
really– built in Antarctica by legendary explorers, Ernest Shackleton and Robert
Falcon Scott. Nigel: Through our conservation work we’ve had some magnificent
discoveries probably the most famous of which is the whisky that was left
behind by Shackleton and his crew underneath the wooden floors. Dinah: despite its remote location the site is
attracting a lot of attention from tourists. Those with the fortitude to
endure the three sometimes four week journey from New Zealand to Antarctica
will see firsthand this unique collection of 100 year old wooden huts–
the first to be built on the world’s last uncharted continent. Chip: Welcome to the PEMcast– conversations
and stories for the culturally curious from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem
Massachusetts I’m Chip Van Dyke. Dinah: and I’m Dinah Cardin. This is the second episode
in a series about our historic house crush campaign. We’re looking at
historic buildings from different angles and asking our listeners to share
architectural finds on Instagram and the like with #historichousecrush.
Chip: You know if people are spending four weeks on a boat to visit a bunch of
cabins in a barren wasteland then it’s pretty clear that there’s some kind of
draw to buildings that can tell stories. In this episode we talk with people
who are pushing the envelope– to use a building term– on presenting historic
houses to the public. They’re changing the way these houses
are run and the way we experience them. Dinah: You’ll hear unexpected stories about
cocktails, chamber pots, and one-night stands Chip: It’s not what you think, but stick around. Joel: I thought for a long time– a beautifully done house museum is like
you know a Merchant Ivory movie set, but we don’t have the storyline that’s written
in a way that a movie script is written because it’s doesn’t have that emotion
and all good movies are about… seem to be about emotion. Dinah: Joel Lefever is the
director of the Museums of Old York, a collection of historic buildings and
properties in York, ME. Chip: This is a very busy road for… Joel: They’re all going to york
beach. It’s a it’s what people do here in the summer. Chip: Before he took the job in
York, Joel was a consultant for historic house museums. Joel: I think a big
part of the move in museums now… house museums is to create experiences and a
lot of times that is food or it’s music or its having a different perspective on
the tour. Chip: He told me about his recent work with a
museum that was in danger of being shut down the Alexander Ramsey House in St.
Paul Minnesota. Joel: It’s beautifully maintained, all original collection on a
beautiful victorian park in a city, but it was completely disconnected from
the neighborhood. They really needed to start having an interpretation that
wasn’t about kind of Victorian domestic life. Dinah: Joel worked with the museum to
imagine what a reinterpretation might look like. Joel: They started doing something
they called “History Happy Hour.” It’s about daily challenges of life then and now.
Chip: History Happy Hour covers any topic from the time when the family lived in the
house– the late eighteen hundreds to the 1960s. Prohibition, the sexual revolution…
this October they’re discussing the history of horror movies. Joel: And so they
have guest speakers come in and give a lecture and they have a drink. It’s been extremely popular it sells out
because now the interpretation isn’t about, sorry, but lace underwear and sugar
cookies. People enjoy it and it’s more relevant. Chip: I asked Joel if there were any
other historic house museums we should visit that have adopted this approach to
connecting with people. Joel: There are places that I know that I’ve been that seem to
be more about the emotion. One is the lower east side Tenement Museum in New
York. They don’t have… A lot of what’s in their collection comes from ebay because
they’re creating very working-class interiors very little is precious. So
it’s more about the emotion and the story of the people is telling than it
is “We have their chair.” You know? Chip: We wanted
to learn more about the tenement museum firsthand, so we sent Dinah on assignment
to New York. Dinah: It was a humid summer day in the lower
east side of Manhattan when i joined up with my tour group. Guide: Would anyone like a fan? We call
this old-school air conditioning. Come on in if you like. You’re welcome to
sit. You can sit on anything that does not look historic. Dinah: The Tenement museum is
housed in an old tenement building at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan. Between 1863
in 1935 the building was home to nearly 7,000 poor and working-class immigrants
Guide: So, friends, now we are actually looking at an apartment. So note- we’ve got three rooms:
We’ve got a bedroom, the kitchen, and then the parlor. All together these three rooms are about 325 square
feet, or 31 square meters. Chip: Dinah, I’m terrible at imagining rooms in square feet. Just how
big is that? Dinah: Okay if we’re looking at a 325 square foot living room you might
say that’s a comfortable living room. Now divide that into three rooms. Guide: How many people do you feel like you
would be able to live with comfortably in an apartment this size before someone
needed to move out? Guest: Six. Guide: You could live with six here?! Guest:Yeah. (Laughter) Guide: Alright!I love it!
Dinah: On average there
were about six people for every 3-room apartment. At its most crowded,
there were as many as 12. I was struck by how the Tenement Museum is exactly as it was
left when the tenants were evicted. Here in Salem, many historic homes are sort of
fancy. PEM’s Gardener Pingree house, for instance, boasts carved mantelpieces a
grand staircase and plush canopy beds– the life of one wealthy family. While the
Tenement Museum, with its peeled wallpaper, cramped living quarters, and
humble furnishings celebrates the lives of many families struggling to get by in
a new country. Dave: One would be hard-pressed that kind of describe this particular
building or any of the architectural details as indicative of a no particular
architectural movement like we don’t know who the architect for this building
was. Dinah: This is Dave Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs. Dave started at the
Tenement Museum in 2004 and had a chance to work with one of the founders, Ruth
Abram. Dave: You know Ruth in particular talked about how she really envisioned a place
where Americans of a variety of backgrounds you kind of come together
and understand the ways in which their ancestors contributed to this being a
nation of immigrants. Dinah: He told me about the moment the founders of the Tenement
Museum first discovered the building at 97 Orchard Street. Dave: They weren’t able to
find a building and decided instead they were going to look for rentable leasable
storefront space while they searched for the appropriate building. Dinah:They were
searching for a building that had a long history of housing immigrants. Dave: There was
a for rent sign one of the storefronts here at 97 Orchard St. and came to
look at the space and was let out into the main entry hallway the building was
really even at that point was left and state it was in when all of the
tenants were evicted in 1835. Dinah: They had found their tenement and within it the
evidence of those who had lived there. Dave: We found things like tickets to a nearby
synagogue that no longer exists for high holiday services, advertisements for English classes that
are written in Yiddish. One of my favorites is a… what at the time was called
a premium coupon. I grew up in the nineteen eighties right and so they were
like the proofs of purchase for cereal boxes which were written in Italian and
English and you could exchange them for like a set of drinking glasses. Chip: The
tenement museum connects the past to the present and helps visitors appreciate
the continued roll immigration has played in shaping America’s identity.
Dinah:They also offer teachers innovative ways to introduce students to the complex
issues surrounding immigration. Dave: I’ve been struck by some of the comments and
perspectives of our international visitors who in places like Europe.
There just beginning to kind of grapple with immigration and what that
means and for their own sort of countries and societies. There was no
immigration debate when I started here in 2004 and they they reach the kind of
pitch now right here and I think people want to talk about these things. They
want to talk about the role of immigration in the United States today
and we I think I’ve long felt that a reference to the past in a space that
evokes those stories of immigrants a hundred years ago or more really helps
to create kind of a safe space for having those those kinds of
conversations. Georgina: We used to come here all the time with my mother. She used to give
us a treat we used to go to Katz and she used to buy hot dogs and divided in two and knish… (laughs)
That was an amazing trip. Dinah: at the Katz deli down the street? Georgina: Yes yes yes Dinah: This is Georgina. Georgina: Let me say it in Spanish better: Geogina Acevedo Babylonia. Dinah: She works at
the tenement museum Georgina: I’m the financial administrative manager
Dinah: And has lived in the neighborhood her whole life Georgina: the locals were the locals. like if you were Jewish they will have Jewish culture and then in the 60s, I
think, you know, what I recall it started to slowly change and then
we had a lot of delis– they were called “bodegas” that was Latino’s– bodega. Every culture… Every immigrant that comes to
the city especially the big city that tried to always go to an area that will have their food, their culture, the language, the people, and in the museum it
has all of that because it represents all immigrants. Dinah: It’s nice to talk to
somebody who grew up here. Thanks. Dinah: After leaving the tenement museum I
headed out onto the streets of lower Manhattan to meet up with Frank Vagnone.
Frank: Franklin Vagnone and i am president of my own cultural consulting firm, Twisted
Preservation. Dinah: Frank is a bit of a rebel in the historic house world. He’s even
written a manifesto on the subject called The Anarchist Guide to Historic
House Museums. Frank: I feel like what we’ve done is we’ve leaned so far to the side of
presenting them as kind of art museums– curated decorative arts spaces– We’ve got the ropes and everything is so
curated and so clean and there’s no smells no sounds and everything’s fed to
us with the tour guide with the guided script to tour. So places like the
Tenement Museum can take us into that tactile realm both physically as well as
kind of cognitively. Chip: Frank was also the director of the Historic House Trust of
New York City. He now travels the world to promote new ideas about historic
house interpretation. One director of a historic House Museum complemented Frank
by saying “You’ve derailed my understanding what this place is about.”
Dinah: Frank told me the story of when a brick was thrown through the window of a
historic house in Philadelphia. Frank: That’s absolutely true. Thats Grumblethorpe in
Philadelphia and I went there because i wanted to figure out how to repair it
and all of that and I realized very quickly that there were some issues
because we thought we were doing a really good job but clearly the
neighborhood didn’t think that we were doing a good job because they didn’t
value it is a community resource. Dinah: So Frank change the whole idea of
engagement at Grumblethorpe to reflect the houses history as an agricultural estate.
Frank: We kind of closed it to walk-in visitors, opened it to scholars, changed the gardens
into vegetable gardens and invited neighborhood kids to start a farmers
market, work up the business plan, actually run i. That’s a kind of example
of how house museum can really engage the community in a very meaningful way
and still be true to its narrative. Dinah: most recently Frank has been blogging about visiting
historic house museums when no one else is there – at night in his pajamas. He
calls them One Night Stands. Dinah: I just picture you like in your little
slippers in your pajamas. Frank: I mean truthfully I get in my jammies I’ll go and make tea. I’ll sit in the living
room using the furniture, using the collections, experiencing the house in
the spaces in the way that they were originally intended. At the Hull House
in Lancaster, NY it’s an 1810 dwelling and there’s no bathroom in it
and I use the chamber pot. Dinah: but Frank’s not seeking to recreate an historically
accurate experience. He doesn’t check his contemporary life at the door. Frank: One of the things you’ll notice in my
pictures I’ve got my computer sitting on the desk. I’ve got my iPhone by my bed. The issue that i’m trying to bring up iss
how these historic sites can inform my contemporary life. Chip: Frank believes that
most visitors to historic homes never get a real sense of what it’s like to
live in that space. Frank: you really get no sense that people walked around in their
bare feet and drink coffee and tea and went to the bathroom and slept there and
that’s one of the reasons why the one-night stands are so important and if
you read my blogs I’m constantly struggling with conveying the tactility
of the experience that I’ve have Georgina: the night time is the best time. The
night time is the best time. When you stand in the museum in the middle of the
museum and you know it always like you could actually imagine going back
in that time, seeing the people, like if you really play close attention, i don’t
know if you spiritual or not, but I I get it all the time… you can imagine like the
family, the woman, you know the work the laughter the cries… there’s so many
things that happen in that place that happen nowadays. Chip: that’s our show thanks for listening.
special thanks to Joel at the Museums of old York and Dave, Georgina, Annie, and
everyone over at the tenement museum. Dinah: thank you frank Vagnone a find Frank and
more info and his one-night stand series at
Chip: find the show notes for this episode along with pictures and links on our blog and for more on the exciting Shackleton and Scott story
check out episode 38 of Lore, a terrific podcast from one town over in Danvers
Massachusetts. Host Aaron Mahnke uses the recent discovery of the Shackleton
whiskey bottles to tee off a truly eerie true story of an unexplainable mystery
in the tundra. listen to the PEMcast on itunes and soundcloud and pretty much
anywhere you listen to podcasts. in our next episode we conclude our historic
house crushed series when we talk with some exceptional historic house crushers
those that have taken their love of historic homes to the next level.
producers for this episode are myself Dinah Cardin, Caryn Boehm and Whitney
Van Dyke. Corbett Sparks is our audio engineer. Melissa woods was our script
consultant. Tosa Two Heart was our production
assistant and finally here is Frank Vagnone with an important message Frank: so go ahead everybody tweet #historichousecrush

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